No matter how hard or how often you work out to build muscle or lose weight, sometimes the exercises that have been going so well for so long don't do the trick anymore. That's called "plateauing," and it can be one of the most frustrating parts of getting in shape.
It happens when your body gets used to your routine.
"Think about going into the woods and chopping down an average-size tree. You'll probably develop a blister -- stress response. Your body will callus under that blister and get stronger -- adaptation. If you went back out a week later and cut down the same size tree, your hands wouldn't blister," says Nick Clayton, program manager at the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). "The same is true for exercise: Your body will adapt so it can handle that same amount of stress in the future."
Luckily, you aren't necessarily stuck. "Probably there are about four or five things that have been consistently shown to be effective in helping individuals avoid kind of reaching a plateau," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Change Your Approach
An easy first step to get back on track is to switch up your routine a bit.
One way, Bryant says, is "progressively, over time, increasing the training intensity -- whether that's increasing the amount of weight, increasing the number of repetitions you perform, resistance-type exercise, reducing the rest period between sets or exercises."
Think of "FITT" to help you decide how you could shake things up:
- Frequency, between 3 and 5 days a week
- Intensity, how hard you work out (As you get in better shape, you'll need more intense workouts to reach the target heart rate for your age.)
- Time, 20-60 minutes per session, up to 150 minutes a week
- Types of exercise
Varying your exercises "grew out of the whole cross-training notion," Bryant says. "You mix up the stimulus you're applying to the body by changing up the exercise."
With resistance training, he says, people will mix up their exercise order, starting with the lower body if they usually start with their upper body. Or they may alternate upper- and lower-body exercises as a way to give their body a new type of stress or stimulus.
Clayton suggests the month-by-month schedule below as an example to keep your strength-training workout fresh and make sure you don't overuse any single muscle group:
- Focus on muscular endurance. Work on your upper and lower body with 15-20 reps.
- Work on specific body areas -- like your legs, chest and shoulders, or your back and biceps -- with 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps.
- Build strength with higher weights and fewer reps, like 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps.
- Start the cycle again.
Allow for Recovery
The right amount of recovery time is an important part of breaking out of a plateau, too.
"Many people just aren't getting adequate rest between their exercise bouts," Bryant says. "I think that is more true today than perhaps in the more recent past, as we become busier in our lifestyles and as things like high-intensity interval training and more challenging forms of exercise have become more popular."
How do you know how much you need? "The biggest thing is being intelligent enough to listen to your body," he says. Typically, when you don't give your body enough time to adjust to the training, you'll start to see a slight decline in your performance. Maybe keeping up the intensity or similar loads of exercise become harder. You could also be less enthusiastic about your workouts.
If these things start happening, that's your signal to allow yourself more rest, back off your intensity, or change up what you're doing for a while, he says. Let your body readjust and reset. Most times, when you ramp back up, you'll continue to improve.
OK Is OK
When you're trying to break out of a plateau, avoid the temptation to put too much pressure on yourself or to lift more or longer than feels right. Those kinds of things can lead to injury, make you doubt yourself, and sap your motivation.
It's OK to be just OK during a workout. "It's almost never a good idea to really try to, I like to say, 'Go for a gold-medal performance' every time you go to the gym and train," Bryant says. "You need to give yourself some opportunities to have those 'bronze-level' performances."
Your body has limits, and you can't keep challenging it with high-intensity efforts, workout after workout. If you do a heavy workout on Monday, you may want to do either a different type of activity or a more moderate workout the next time you're in the gym on Wednesday, he says. "Then maybe think about challenging yourself -- maybe -- your next workout."
Clayton agrees that challenging yourself is enough.
"Don't get sucked into the world of social media, the 'fittest person in the gym,' or the latest trends, meaning: Don't just do something random because someone more fit -- or that appears more fit -- does it," he says. "Find a routine that works and stick with it, consistently but gradually making it harder."
Retrain Your Metabolism, Too
To lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than you burn throughout the day. "You can't out-train a bad diet -- unless you're a 20-year-old," Clayton says.
But when you eat fewer calories, your body adjusts by needing less energy, and that can lead to plateauing. It might be your body's way of telling you that you don't have any more weight to lose.
If you do need to shed a few more pounds, the best way to get through the plateau is to keep exercising and eating right. Your metabolism will eventually catch up to your new habits, and you'll start to lose weight again.
Sometimes you might plateau because of what you're doing away from the gym rather than what you're doing in it. It helps to see the bigger picture.
"Oftentimes, people become myopic and focus solely on what is happening in the gym from a training perspective," Bryant says. "They don't look at all of their lives, in terms of 'Am I having relational problems?' or 'My job demands are just really crazy!' or 'Am I traveling more than I normally do?' All those things are going to influence how our bodies respond to exercise training."
Keeping that broader perspective and adapting to your circumstances will serve you well. "I've always coached clients based on their motivation and life situation, letting them know that for a given period of time when they are busy, we're not going to push," Clayton says. "But similarly, once those stressors decrease, we're going to ramp things up."